Should cinema shoulder a moral responsibility towards socio-political course correction in our society? Should cinema play a role in navigating socio-cultural narratives of our society lest validating misogyny and toxic masculinity?
From time to time, Bollywood comes back and puts sexism and misogyny in the driver seat. What makes it worse is these films turn out to be big hits on the box office thus normalising the message of misogyny. An example of such a film is Kabir Singh directed by Sandeep Vanga, starring Shahid Kapoor and Kiara Advani.
Here’s how the plot goes: Kabir’s grandma remembers a time with her friends when a young Kabir misplaced his treasured doll and sought it obsessively. When the grandma tries to convince young Kabir to let go of his doll, he reacts emphatically, insisting that it is his doll and must find it.
When Kabir Singh grows up and goes to medical school, he finds himself a ‘new doll.’ Except, this time it’s a real woman named Preeti, played by actor Kiara Advani, a timid and submissive first-year student. Singh is very ‘protective’ and ‘possessive’ about her, in turn making Preeti believe that indeed she is ‘his doll.’ Preeti threatens other boys not to misbehave with her and kiss her without consent because she ‘belongs’ to someone else.
He even chooses a ‘healthy’ girl to be best friends with Preeti as, according to Kabir, all pretty girls should have a healthy best friend. However, almost till the 50th-minute mark in the film, we do not hear anything from Preeti while is in a toxic relationship. Through the film, Kabir loses Preeti indulges in alcohol and substance abuse and develops even more severe anger issues than before.
Moreover, he abuses Preeti and her father (Harpal), after the latter refuses to give Kabir his daughter’s hand in marriage. He threatened to marry her without consent while her father watches from jail in shackles. He slaps her and gives her an ultimatum of 6 hours to get her mind right and decide who she wants to be with.
My problem with this film is not that Kabir Singh is an angry misogynist and an extremely problematic character. However, there is a need for critique and careful examination of the effects such content can produce, having a lasting impact on the trajectory of our socio-political movements to bring about change in the position of women in society.
In that, director Sandeep Vanga responding to critics taking issue with Kabir slapping Preeti in the film, said, “…if you can’t slap, if you can’t touch a woman wherever you want, if you can’t kiss, can’t use cuss words, I don’t see emotion there”. He further iterated, “I feel in every person; there is a lot of Kabir inside them and if they do not express them for so many other reasons, and every person who falls in love has that honesty in them, therefore, Kabir connects with the audience.”
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The director of the film seems to claim that there exist Kabir Singh like tendencies in all people, with which I’m afraid I have to disagree, yet giving him the benefit of the doubt and assuming he knows what he is saying, Kabir Singh becomes so much more problematic than the film already is as it seems to be validating misogyny and violent demeanor in a section of the audience watching it.
The display of a problematic character on the big screen warrants a careful inspection of the narrative itself. Kabir is a problematic character who extremely unapologetically abuses Preeti, her father, slaps her, pulls a knife on a girl when she refuses to sleep with him, and can be ungrateful, vengeful, violent, misogynist, patriarchal, and who without facing any significant consequences for his behaviour ends up with Preeti and that is what is genuinely problematic with the film; The glorification of toxic masculinity and the propagation of the boys-will-be-boys agenda.
Taking from Kabir Singh, I do not want a young teen with the alleged “Kabir” inside of him to watch this film and have a misogynist like Kabir Singh validate his believes and demeanour. I am not comfortable imagining a scenario where Kabir Singh shapes young, impressionable minds into expecting girls to be submissive to them through their misogynist behaviour, claiming ownership and disregarding consent, much like Kabir did.
Films like Kabir Singh certainly imprint dangerous precedence in the narrative of gender equality, domestic violence and harassment. Of course, the fact that cinema is a highly influential medium with an incredible reach has to be accounted for. However, I cannot pretend to know the answer to whether films like Kabir Singh, which tarnish the feminist narrative of our country, should be made or not as that would stain our constitutional commitments towards free speech and expression.
Films like Kabir Singh glorify patriarchal values and misogyny that we as a community can not stand for.
The views expressed are the author’s own.